EPA says fracking does not harm drinking water
Hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and natural gas has not caused widespread harm to drinking water in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday in a report that also warned of potential contamination of water supplies if safeguards are not maintained.
A draft study issued by the agency found specific instances in which poorly constructed drilling wells or improper wastewater management affected drinking water, but said the number of cases was small compared with the large number of wells that use hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
The EPA assessment tracked water used throughout the fracking process, from acquiring the water to mixing chemicals at the well site and injecting so-called “fracking fluids” into wells, to collection of wastewater, wastewater treatment and disposal.
The report identified several vulnerabilities to drinking-water resources, including fracking’s effect on drought-stricken areas; inadequately cased or cemented wells resulting in below-ground migration of gases and liquids; inadequately treated wastewater discharged into drinking water resources and spills of hydraulic fluids and wastewater.
Congress ordered the long-awaited report in 2010, as a surge in fracking fueled a nationwide boom in production of oil and natural gas. Fracking wells have sprouted up in recent years from California to Pennsylvania, as energy companies take advantage of improved technology to gain access to vast stores of oil and natural gas underneath states from coast to coast.
Fracking involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rock formations so oil and gas will flow. The practice has spurred an ongoing energy boom but has raised widespread concerns that it might lead to groundwater contamination, increased air pollution and even earthquakes.
Industry groups hailed the EPA study as proof that fracking is safe, while environmental groups seized on the report’s identification of cases in which fracking-related activities polluted drinking water.
“After more than five years and millions of dollars, the evidence gathered by EPA confirms what the agency has already acknowledged and what the oil and gas industry has known: Hydraulic fracturing is being done safely under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators and industry-best practices,” said Erik Milito, upstream group director of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s top lobbying group.
But Lauren Pagel, policy director of the environmental group Earthworks, said, “Today EPA confirmed what communities living with fracking have known for years: Fracking pollutes drinking water.”
“Now the Obama administration, Congress and state governments must act on that information to protect our drinking water and stop perpetuating the oil and gas industry’s myth that fracking is safe,” she said.
EPA officials said the report was not intended to prove whether fracking is safe, but instead was aimed at how state regulators, tribes, local communities and industry can best protect drinking water and reduce the risks of fracking. The report has cost $29 million since 2010, the EPA said, with an additional $4 million expected this year.